A poodle barking up the wrong tree

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 22 January, 2007, 12:00am

The contrast between the feel-good rhetoric favoured by our chief bureaucrat, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, and the realities of life and business in Hong Kong could scarcely have been more stark last week.

Do not imagine that Beijing will do what Hong Kong wants, even if the cost to itself is negligible. And do not imagine that all the talk of cross-border co-operation can overcome local vested interests and prejudices.

The 200-item wish list put forward as Hong Kong's way to capitalise on Beijing's five-year plan is remarkable partly for its platitudes; the 'win-win' nonsense by which Mr Tsang hopes both to show loyalty to the central government and to be doing things for Hong Kong. Many of the 'key initiatives' are demeaning, in different ways, to both Hong Kong and Beijing.

Most striking are the suggestions that the mainland should liberalise all kinds of financial services and capital movements specifically to benefit Hong Kong. But why should it, knowing that any such move will effectively apply globally - given Hong Kong's open system? It is demeaning to suggest that Hong Kong needs special favours to develop its financial services. And it is insulting to demand that Beijing pursue liberalisation at a pace which its leaders clearly do not believe is in the national interest.

Mr Tsang the poodle again presents himself like a supplicant at the Forbidden City seeking special favours from the emperor. Instead, he should be focusing on the issues that would enable Hong Kong to develop its core international trade, commerce and finance business in accord with its separate economic status and separate membership of the World Trade Organisation and similar bodies.

Rather than crowing about mainland links, Hong Kong should be wondering why it is losing, at least according to DHL and Japan Airlines, its business links to northeast Asia.

The proposal for a 'brand Hong Kong' campaign is so silly as to deserve some attention by the Kazakh 'journalist', Borat. Hong Kong already has a brand identity which it is in danger of losing thanks to efforts to get closer to the motherland by looking more like Shenzhen.

As for establishing 'a high-level mechanism to tackle air pollution' one wonders what happens at all those supposedly high-level gatherings between Hong Kong and mainland officials, or why Guangdong should take any notice of a Hong Kong which itself does so little to tackle its own pollution.

How little notice mainland officials take of the obsequious Mr Tsang is evident from the air traffic situation. One of the 200 items is to 'consult' Beijing and Macau on relaxing air space controls. The Hong Kong government has been pussyfooting around this subject for ages. It makes exaggerated claims for the supposed benefits of the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement but has achieved nothing on the crucial issue of air space. We are told that a third runway should be built, at vast expense, when the capacity problem is, for the time being at least, entirely different.

Last week, Cathay Pacific chief executive Philip Chen Nan-lok noted that the solution to the capacity problem at Chek Lap Kok was 'primarily a question of determination' not technical issues. It handles at most 55 regular flights an hour, compared with a design capacity of at least 80, due to wider than necessary separations between flights. Earlier, Airport Authority chairman Victor Fung Kwok-king noted the stranglehold imposed by air space controls over China which cause 'a traffic jam in the air' and waste vast amounts of fuel. Interestingly, Hong Kong seems to have a much bigger air space problem than smaller Singapore, with its not-always-friendly neighbours, Indonesia and Malaysia.

In contrast to grovelling towards mainland officialdom is fear of, or disdain for, mainlanders in general. The fuss over pregnant mainlanders hasn't reached the level of hysteria drummed up by the government over the right of abode in 1999, when the data was flagrantly rigged by the Census and Statistics Department prior to a reinterpretation of the Basic Law. But it introduces a double discrimination - against mainlanders compared with visitors from elsewhere, and against those who cannot afford the recently increased hospital charges.

There may be a problem with women coming to Hong Kong to give birth - though given the very low local birth rate, it is hard to imagine that maternity facilities are overstretched. But that is no reason to discriminate against mainlanders.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator